Books: The Beckham Experiment

…by Grant Wahl

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The Beckham Experiment: How the World’s Most Famous Athlete Tried to Conquer America has been lauded and praised by everyone from dead-spinner Will Leitch to that anti-soccer curmudgeon, Frank DeFord.  And why is that?  Because it’s American Sports Journalism at its finest?  Because it takes the high gloss sheen from David Beckham and his PR machine?  Because it’s a true Hollywood tale of haves and have-nots?  Yeah, no doubt…

The best thing for me is this is the first high profile book devoted to the strange and sometimes counter-intuitive world of Major League Soccer.  This is the world David Beckham brought himself and his handlers into.  The world of a niche sport trying to grasp its share of the fickle American sports attention span, in which soccer, the world’s most popular sport, is relegated to afterthought status on Sportscenter.  In MLS, you have a league set up in a single-entity fashion and backed by some of this country’s wealthiest businessmen.  This structure has so far protected the league and kept it afloat, even amidst contraction (two Florida teams lost several years ago) and unimpressive TV ratings.  Now MLS has been adding teams the past few seasons: Toronto, San Jose, Seattle, and next year Philadelphia.  Attendance-wise, the teams are solid, ranking up there with soccer leagues in places like the Netherlands, Sweden, and France.  But MLS’s single-entity structure isn’t like anyplace else.  The league (not teams) own the player contracts, which means, a team can’t just go out and buy talent like in Europe.  It’s a system meant to impose parity and fiscal responsibility on the teams – something Team Beckham never seemed to grasp.

What it means is MLS has a distinct upper class – players like Beckham, Landon Donovan, Juan Pablo Angel, and Freddie Ljungberg, and it has a lower class of players making $50K a year or less.  MLS is attention-starved and has often signed famous players who were past their prime, only to have them bomb out in the states.  Despite the league’s self-proclaimed title, it’s not a ‘major league’ – not yet.  This doesn’t mean as fans we support our teams with less enthusiasm, but we have to realize, as detailed in this book, that the teams are flying coach, staying in the Best Western, and eating team meals at sizzler.  Did David Beckham realize what he was getting himself into?  Obviously he did not.

The story of the 2007 Los Angeles Galaxy is of Beckham’s breathless and injury-riddled arrival in MLS.  It’s full of those awkward moments with Beckham on the road not picking up the check when half his teammates can barely afford their L.A. rent, the media roadshow, and Beckham’s attempts to balance his image and his product lines on the fulcrum of a gimpy left ankle.  The 2008 season had two main narratives:  Team Beckham’s hostile takeover of the Galaxy front office, and the Galaxy’s (and Beckham’s) disastrous run of poor play, which led to a sense of disinterest in the team and the league and the eventual loan deal with Italian giants, AC Milan.

The 08 story is particularly riveting, detailing how old US soccer hand and PR guru Alexi Lalas saw his authority as  GM usurped by Terry Byrne.  Byrne, Beckham’s best friend, is a former physio-trainier and groundsmen with Chelsea whose main claim to fame was befriending Beckham at his low point (the red card vs. Argentina in the 98 World Cup) and sticking with him.  Byrne brought in former all-world player Ruud Gullit, a coach who had neither the interest nor capacity to understand and succeed in MLS.  The way Grant Wahl explains it, you had almost a perfect storm of miscommunication and ineptitude, of old-world naivete about American Soccer, and new-world shortcoming of MLS’s structure and standards of play.  On one hand you can understand Beckham’s frustration and eventual disillusionment with the Galaxy.  After all, he only knew Manchester United and Real Madrid – two of the world’s true juggernauts – and had no experience with sustained losing streaks and that kind of colossal team failure.  On the other hand, the Galaxy’s spiral of woe seemed like a great opportunity for Beckham to lead, show some spine, be that veteran captain rallying the troops to make a push for the playoffs, or at least respectability.  But that didn’t happen.

Instead Beckham comes off as a fairly vapid and overly image conscious athlete who wasn’t able to answer when the adversity bell rang.  As a soccer player he’s always seemed most like an excellent role-player with and even better PR machine, and the L.A. experience pretty much confirms this.  He’s not the guy you build your team around.  Maybe your fashion line or your multi-continental marketing campaign, but not a soccer team.  The other management personalities, such as Lalas, Byrne, Galaxy and AEG frontman Tim Leiwke, and 19 Entertainment head Simon Fuller, are at points genuine, manipulative, scheming, willfully ignorant, and downright idiotic, but never dull.

As for the MLS players, the guys toiling away in an imperfect league, trying their best to have decent professional careers while building soccer in the U.S. – well, they were always going to come out OK in this book.  Grant Wahl has been covering MLS since it began. Like many of us diehard soccer fans, he’s personally invested in the league’s success.  And we all really want it to succeed. You can’t blame Wahl for being perhaps a little biased towards the rank-and-file soccer player.  That said it’s hard not to identify with a guy like Alan ‘Gordo’ Gordon, making $30K a year in L.A., living in a crappy apartment with two roommates.  Or veteran players like Chris Klein and Pete Vagenas, trying hard to put on a brave face for the sake of MLS even as the ship was sinking.

Then you have Landon Donovan, the face of U.S. Soccer.  If Lando comes off a bit petulant, a little over-sensitive at points, you have a hard time blaming him.  After all, he was and remains the Galaxy’s (and the league’s and the nation’s) best soccer player.  While the Galaxy was leaking goals and losing games (often in highly entertaining fashion), all he did was keep scoring goals on the way to a career year.  Donovan seems to have used this experience to turn the corner on realizing his potential and becoming a consummate professional.  He was also the guy who finally called bullshit on the whole mess, who publicly criticized Beckham and his handlers after they’d turned the the Galaxy into a fiasco.  If American soccer fans take nothing else from the story it’s that Donovan has emerged from this particular crucible all the stronger.

The story’s not over yet.  After last seaeon, the Galaxy turned to Bruce Arena, the Don of American soccer coaches, to reverse their fortunes, and he has done just that, building a foundation of veterans, solid play, and savvy acquisitions that now has L.A. looking like a dangerous playoff team.  After his loan to Milan, Beckham has returned to the U.S. for the second half of the season.  He’s clashed with fans, scored, assisted, and generally looked like a very solid role player.  And maybe MLS fans shouldn’t be too hard on ol’ Bex, after all, he only did what he’s always done: told the people what they wanted to hear, promoted the game, and got himself on some talk-shows and billboards.  There’s no doubt he’s raised the profile of MLS both domestically and abroad.  Many of us can only wince when we imagine the effect he would’ve had if he’d shown up healthy, stayed the course, and the Galaxy front office made a few more wise moves.

And of course, if we didn’t have David Beckham suiting up for the L.A. Galaxy we wouldn’t have this book.  We wouldn’t have this highly entertaining story.  Perhaps more importantly, we wouldn’t be taking such a hard look at MLS’s business practices, its successes and failures.  The Beckham Experiment certainly provides critical insight into where Major League Soccer has been and where it needs to go.  Let’s hope the lessons have been learned and the next big thing in MLS enjoys a bit more success.

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